The never-ending story

It is hardly surprising that Robin McAlpine’s non-political friends are hearing an independence “story” that is about the status quo and stopping change “so we can go back to the way things used to be”. Why would they not hear this? It’s what he’s telling them the independence story has become. He’s peddling a story about the story. That is what his friends, and many others, are hearing.

But is this story accurate? How reliable is Robin’s account of the way things are? Perhaps we can get a clue from his account of the way things were.

According to Robin, the Yes side in the first independence referendum campaign had “basically” two stories. There was the “official” story; which he characterises as overly cautious and a bit wishy-washy. Then there was the story being told by the “wider movement”; which is portrayed as bolder and more visionary and more aspirational.

Is that how it was? Is that how you remember it? Does Robin’s version even accord with known facts? He warns that “we’re surprisingly good at filtering out any information which doesn’t fit with our story”. Presumably, he doesn’t regard himself as immune from this tendency to make the facts fit our preferred story. And isn’t this precisely what Robin is doing with his claim that the “official” line was simply, ‘the best people to make a decision about a place are the people who live there’?

Really? Scotland didn’t even get a mention in this official story? No wonder it was “ineffectual”!

This was certainly part of the story being told by the SNP and Yes Scotland. But it is disingenuous, at best, to pretend that it was the whole story.

I’m looking at the foreword to Scotland’s Future. Which, for our purposes. may be regarded as the text of that official story. I’m reading the following,

If we vote No, Scotland stands still. A once in a generation opportunity to follow a different path, and choose a new and better direction for our nation, is lost. Decisions about Scotland would remain in the hands of others.

With independence we can make Scotland the fairer and more successful country we all know it should be. We can make Scotland’s vast wealth and resources work much better for everyone in our country, creating a society that reflects our hopes and ambition.

This story is repeated a number of times in the White Paper. It is, if you like, the core message of the document. In what way is it different from what Robin tells us was the alternative story?

Scots like a fairer, more equal society and Westminster doesn’t so if you want to live better, we have to escape.

It’s the same story! Different words! Same message!

Robin brands the official version ineffectual because it “simply didn’t speak to people about their lives, their situations, their futures”. He castigates the “cautious strategists”, accusing them of being “too scared to come up with an actual story – you know, with a beginning, a middle and an end, a hero and a villain”.

But the two stories – official and alternative – are all but identical. So, to whatever extent the story was the problem, it was a story as told by the entire Yes movement. A claim which, if even remotely accurate, has implications for the ongoing independence campaign far beyond anything identified by Robin McAlpine.

Robin dismisses the official story as “an attempt to create a blank page for your own story, as if saying ‘Scotland can make its own mind up’ would be met by millions of thought bubbles popping up as people fill in the rest for themselves”. But isn’t that exactly what happened? Isn’t it the case that the alternative, or wider, Yes movement which he compares with the official SNP/Yes Scotland campaign is simply this process of “thought bubbles popping up” made manifest?

And, crucially, was the official story not absolutely necessary in order to get people believing that they actually could “fill in the rest for themselves”?

And what of Robin’s portrayal of this “wider movement” as a single, unified entity telling a story that was both significantly different from and far superior to the official one? That’s certainly not what I saw. What I saw was an uncounted number of groups, sub-groups and factions all offering different versions of the story’s ending, while leaving the beginning and middle all but unmentioned. I saw lots of people talking about being independent without ever addressing the far from minor matter of becoming independent.

I saw a proliferation of factories in which a multitude of ‘righteous radicals’ laboured to churn out a plethora of branded policy options for an independent Scotland, until there were so many answers one could barely discern the question.

Not that there was necessarily anything wrong with having these options, or even with the policies themselves. It’s just that independence came to be defined in so many ways that it wasn’t actually defined at all. It was so many different things, it was nothing. Or, at least, nothing that anybody could be sure of. Thus, the anti-independence strategy of generating uncertainty was augmented and reinforced by large parts of the Yes campaign. Was that not the real problem?

The alternative story was told at expense of the official story. But was it even a real alternative? Towards the end of his presentation to the recent Scottish Independence Convention (SIC) conference, in which he spoke with all his customary erudition, eloquence and passion about that particular subset of ‘answers’ being offered by Common Weal, Robin McAlpine said something which may well have been missed by the larger part of his audience. It was a remark made in a manner which suggested, to my ear at least, that it was off-the-cuff and not part of his prepared speech. Be that as it may, the substance of the aside was that he would hope to persuade Nicola Sturgeon of the merit of his case and convince her that the Common Weal proposals should inform a new ‘official’ story.

Implicit in this remark is acceptance of a critical truth. A truth which, to my delight and relief, was very heavily emphasised by several speakers at the SIC conference that day – notably, Tommy Sheppard. I refer to the fact that our First Minister, our Scottish Government and, by necessary implication, the SNP are absolutely crucial to the process of becoming independent. It won’t be Robin McAlpine facing the British Prime Minister across the table when it comes to the negotiations following a Yes vote. It won’t be Patrick Harvie. It certainly won’t be an informal committee with a rotating convener representing a collective of Yes stakeholders, civic Scotland and a broad spectrum of opinion. Even if you don’t regard the latter as a vision of hell, it’s just not how British politics works. And independence must be won within the British political system. Because, until we create a better one, it’s the only system there is.

The one who’ll be confronting the British prime Minister is Nicola Sturgeon. Because she has the mandate from the people of Scotland to do the job. And it will be a confrontation. Independence is not given, it has to be seized. It has to be wrenched from the jealous grasp of established power. The British state will fight to the last ditch to maintain the integrity of its structures of power, privilege and patronage. So Nicola Sturgeon is going to need every scintilla of support we can possibly muster.

We should be grateful to Robin McAlpine for bringing this reality to our attention. Even if it was not quite what he intended.

We owe him thanks also for a couple of things we can take from his article about the story needed by the independence movement. He has pointed to a significant issue with the first Yes campaign. And he has pointed the way forward for the next one.

There were not two different independence stories. There was only the official story, and lots of alternative endings to that story. The official story was about winning the power to chose from among those endings. That official story was not deficient or defective. It was just incomplete. But it was incomplete because it couldn’t be otherwise. Nobody has the authority to write the ending to that story but the people of Scotland. And they will be writing it long after we’re all gone.

The problem was not with the official story, but with the insistence among sections of the Yes movement that there were two stories. And that they were competing stories. There was an all too prevalent attitude that the alternative story was in opposition to the official story. And this opposition was all too often expressed in language barely distinguishable from that deployed by the British state’s anti-independence propaganda machine. Some, particularly those on the left, were so preoccupied with finding points of disagreement with the official story that they lost sight of the fact that they were in total agreement with its essentials.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the next Yes campaign needs to have just one story. A story that everybody can tell without compromising the ending that they favour. What we must realise is that we had that story already. This is precisely what the the official story was in the first referendum campaign. It is the story as told in Scotland’s Future.

To claim that the story lacked a beginning and a middle is to misrepresent it. In reality, it had the same beginning and middle as the alternative story. To condemn that story for not having an ending is to denigrate it for not being something it was never intended to be, and never could be. It was a story about becoming independent. It couldn’t have an ending for the rather obvious reason that he story about being independent doesn’t have an ending. It is a story that is constantly being written by the people of Scotland. The point of the official story was to bring people to the realisation that they have the power to write that story themselves. And to write it differently. The alternative story differed only in that it was an attempt to write the ending now. It wasn’t actually an alternate story. It was the same story, but with a huge amount of stuff added on.

Not that this stuff was, or is, unimportant. It’s just not important as part of the story the Yes campaign should be telling. It is something that runs alongside that story. It is supplementary to the official story, not in conflict with it.

The other thing we should be grateful to Robin McAlpine for is what I read as his suggestion that we need to make our story both less unnecessarily complicated as well as more directly and immediately appealing. I am also very much in agreement with the idea that what independent Scotland has the potential to be should be contrasted with what the British state is becoming. That is the alternative story. That is what must be set against the official story – whatever that official story is.

The concept of Scotland as a ‘safe haven’ is a fine thing. But safe from what? If I am understanding Robin aright, he is coming round to the realisation that the Yes movement may have been too obsessively ‘positive’ in the first referendum campaign. That we may have missed opportunities to destroy the Better Together/Project Fear propaganda out of a near-pathological aversion to being seen as ‘negative’. When combined with a preoccupation with internal criticism – much of which amounted to nothing more than pointless posturing and party political point-scoring – it can easily be seen how a Yes campaign within which diversity had become division was weakened relative to a No campaign which was both massively powerful and almost totally unprincipled, but always on-message.

Let’s all start telling our friends a new story. Let’s all start telling the same story. Let’s start telling a story of independence being the key to a Scotland which can be a safe haven from the grotesque and distasteful political culture that is developing apace in the British state.

Let’s be more ready to identify the villain in our story. Let’s encourage people to challenge that villain and question both its representation of itself and its dire vision of Scotland’s place in the world.

Allow me to suggest a title for this story.

Independence: what’s the alternative?

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5 thoughts on “The never-ending story

  1. ScotsCanuck

    exactly …. we have a goal (Independence) and to that end we strive.

    After this has been achieved, then the “factions” be they Right-wing, Left -wing, Centrist, Center-left …. or whatever …. can lay before the Scottish Electorate their Manifesto for Scotland’s political Destiny …. the People will decide.

    As Mr. Bell points out, we need the SNP to be our “vehicle” to achieve that reality …. regardless of your political hue.

    There is bugger all point about arguing or debating the semantics of Scotland’s political makeup after Independence …. until we’ve bloody well won it !!!

    Excellent article, Peter.

  2. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh

    The very opening phrase of the first sentence of the “Story” will be fraught. How many Yes supporters have I now heard come away with something like:

    “I am not a nationalist but I AM for independence.”

    That used to bewilder me somewhat, having for fifty-odd years been under the impression that those wanting Scottish independence were by definition “nationalist”. Not so, I must unlearn.

    Words. Words. I do confess (bristling a bit) to perceiving a certain self-righteous condescension in this “I am not a nationalist but…” pitch. The implication surely being that there is no such thing as a wholesome “nationalism”. So much for that much-vaunted term “civic”…

    Only the True Left, so it appears, can aspire to Scottish independence for entirely unsullied (ie “non-nationalistic”) reasons. Thus the Story must begin and end with the “redistribution of wealth”. Any theme beyond that would be, well, let’s just say, problematically “dark”…

    If I mention Mhairi Black’s maiden speech at Westminster here I must emphasise it is in no way personal. She simply happens to have provided a neat high-profile example. It is clearly not personal, moreover, because her (following) remark was (at least tacitly) endorsed by the Yes community at large. In the midst of Mhairi’s brave and justly lauded first speech she asserted:

    “The SNP did not triumph on a wave of nationalism. In fact nationalism has nothing to do with what’s happened in Scotland.”

    This remarkable pronouncement was made by someone standing among 55 other Scottish NATIONAL Party MPs.

    So just maybe any final “Story” will require a good glossary…

    The above-mentioned statement is at 5.33 mins into this youtube:

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      Thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

      I share you frustration with the hijacking and corrupting of the word ‘nationalist’. People tend to distance themselves from the term because it has been seized by unionists and other shallow thinkers and burdened with all manner of negative connotations and associations. Personally, I have no compunction about calling myself a nationalist. Because I refuse to let others define the label on my behalf.

      I am aware that nationalism is not an ideology in itself. Rather, it is a component of many political ideologies. Perhaps all of them. Nationalism takes many forms and can have different levels of significance. It is not a simple thing.

      Scotland can take some small pride in having developed a political culture in which civic nationalism plays an important, but not predominant role. Future historians will come to recognise this as a noteworthy phenomenon in a world where less enlightened forms of nationalism are increasingly manifest.

  3. Dorothy Bruce

    Asking “Independence: what’s the alternative?” would no doubt have unionists shouting the alternative is sticking with Westminster. So on the face of it the question fails to move us forward. On the other hand, it does link with Nicola’s question of what kind of country we want.

    Perhaps an alternative question could be, Independence, could you live with the alternative? This might make at least some people question whether they could and in what way ‘the alternative’ might affect them – loss of NHS as we know it, perhaps even state pension at risk, the welfare provisions relied on by many.

    Seems to me there is a debate to be had on how we can best word this.

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